3 NY lawmakers ask: Could there be unity around getting stranded New Yorkers out of Israel and Palestinian territories?

Proposed legislation would cover travel costs for New Yorkers stuck in both Israel and Palestine territories to return home.

State Sen. Julia Salazar

State Sen. Julia Salazar NYS Senate Media Services

As the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas continues to divide Democrats over public support for Israelis and Palestinians, lawmakers are introducing legislation that they hope will cut through divisions in order to help New Yorkers stuck in the warzone. Three progressive lawmakers have introduced legislation that would reimburse the travel costs of New Yorkers in both Israel, Gaza and the West Bank trying to flee the conflict, and the sponsors hope that it will garner support even as pro-Israel and pro-Palestine sentiments on the left stir up tension among their colleagues.

Sponsored by state Sens. Julia Salazar and Gustavo Rivera and Assembly Member Emily Gallagher, the proposed bill is meant to step up where they believe that the federal government has fallen short. Although federal officials have pledged support to help get American citizens out of both Israel and the Palestinian territories, the U.S. government has said that those fleeing must pay for their own travel arrangements. “In a moment like this, I’m looking for tangible things that I can actually do for my constituents,” Rivera, who said that many in his district have loved ones personally affected by what is happening overseas, told City & State. He said that he hopes that the federal government will change their minds on what he called a “boneheaded” decision not to cover travel costs, and therefore make the state-level legislation moot. 

Salazar, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, said the inclusion of New Yorkers in Gaza, even though public support for Palestinians has drawn scrutiny, was a no-brainer. “We really have a responsibility to each other as human beings, and all civilians… should be treated as equally valuable and treated as innocents who we should use everything in our power to try to get them out of harm's way,” she told City & State. “I don’t think the U.S. government have done nearly enough to help people who are trapped in Gaza and have been for a long time.” Salazar, who is Jewish, added that she believes that her bill should be “totally uncontroversial” and that the amount of money it would cost the state is nominal. 

Salazar – as well as DSA-backed Gallagher in the Assembly – have been vocal in their support of Palestine and in calling for a ceasefire. Both attended a pro-Palestine protest on Friday organized by the DSA, who have received intense criticism since the start of the Israel-Hamas war for their rhetoric.

But Salazar said that while she hopes more of her colleagues will join her in calling for a ceasefire, the new bill is divorced from those specific demands from her and socialist colleagues. “I think it's a completely separate demand from asking colleagues to sign on to this bill,” Salazar said. “And I do hope that regardless of their position on the war, or the political situation in Israel and Palestine, that they at least would support New York residents in trying to get this relief.”

Many Jewish and pro-Israel Democrats have been staunch in their support of Israel and its military actions against Hamas and the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of an Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants that left 1,400 mostly civilian Israelis dead. That has materialized tangibly in criticism of the DSA and other leftwing progressives who have rallied in support of Palestine in the following days and weeks. Even among other progressive Democrats, calls for a ceasefire are rare. So far, only three New York members of Congress are demanding it, and only one is not associated with the DSA. 

Notably, Salazar and Gallagher are the only two socialists in office who have not co-sponsored legislation that would make nonprofit New York charities stop providing financial assistance to groups that support Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza deemed illegal by the international community. That bill garnered significant opposition when it was introduced, prompting a letter lead by Jewish lawmakers that included signatures from many Democrats in the Assembly condemning the legislation and calling it “a ploy to demonize Jewish charities.” Gallagher, though not a co-sponsor, did not sign the opposition letter coming out of her chamber. 

Salazar told City & State that neither her introduction of the new bill to help New Yorkers leave the region, nor recent developments in the war, has changed her stance on the charity bill and still has no current plans to sponsor it. Gallagher was not available for an interview.

Rivera is also not specifically calling for a ceasefire, and has not taken a public stance on the conflict like many of his colleagues. “I hope that everybody would just remember that there's human beings on both sides of this, and that's where we should focus on,” he said, reiterating his own focus on what he can tangibly do to support his constituents as a state legislator with no influence over foreign policy.